Wednesday, August 3, 2011
My Own Private Oregon, Part One: You Can’t Pick Your Relatives
Every two years or so, we have a family reunion. My mother is the driving force behind these. She had seven children, and although many of them have, through various accidents of life and circumstance, ended up within a 10-minute radius of her home (and others are but an hour or so further out) there was a time when we were scattered to the four winds. Some of us still are. Admittedly – and surely, unsurprisingly – I am the furthest afield here in Alaska. But there are two others who have somehow escaped being drawn into some mysterious maternal vortex which has caused over half of us to congregate on the Eastern seaboard. One of them – my youngest brother – lives in Eugene.
When Michael moved to Eugene – with his wife, who is so excellent we'd have adopted her if he hadn't had the good sense to rope her into the fold by marriage – I thought: Well, of course. Is there any town on the entire planet more perfect for him? I think not.
As a general rule, we try to trade off on coasts for the reunions. For me – thousands of miles further away than any of my siblings - the trip east is arduous and exhausting. But I yield to the temptations of communing with my family, none of whom I would see for years and years on end if not for the reunions, and I make the trip, miserable as it is. It's always worth it. Oregon, however, is a hop, a skip and a jump for me. Child's play. I'd've gone anyhow… but it was really lovely to arrive in good fettle, not on a flight that has required me to leave Alaska at one in the morning, nor travel all night only to arrive exhausted, rumpled and cranky at my destination, and thence to need two days to recover.
Accordingly, I arrived in Eugene just after 9 in the evening the day before everyone else. I was not jet-lagged, cranky or exhausted, and although I might indeed have been a bit rumpled – it is, after all, air travel – and undeniably I arrived hungry (since now you have to pay as much for food and in-flight entertainment as you do for the flight itself), I was cheerful, energetic and excited to see my baby brother. Who, I will in all fairness report, is as richly accomplished as any of us and a good deal taller than some of us (who will not be mentioned, but I notice you are all staring at me for some reason), so the term "baby brother" really only designates his birth order. He is, undeniably, the last sibling born.
Michael – also known by family nickname as Tode (and if you need to see the evolution, it went: Michael, Mackel, Mackelroni, Mike-o, Mito, Mitode, Tode) – is as cheerful and level and calm and good-hearted a brother as you could possibly ever want. He is also prodigiously talented, clear-thinking, generous, kind and a wonderful husband and father. He started his education aimed at the sciences, with thoughts of becoming a physical therapist, but switched to fine arts midway through – a move I have a great deal of sympathy for, as I was myself torn between studying art and science. In the end I decided it was easier to have art as a hobby than to have medicine as a hobby, so I went the science route. Tode went the other way. Here I'll admit that when he did so, I was a little surprised. As kids, my sisters and I were always drawing. Tode, not as much. My sketching sisters and I all went into science, and our much-less-frequently-sketching brother went into art. Go figure. But when he started doing art, it was clear he'd made the right choice: He's gifted. Despite all my crayoning and sketching and painting and sculpting and smithing, he's a better artist than I will ever be.
His wife, K, is an exquisite match for him. Herself a talented artist, she (like Tode) has an analytical mind and is an incisive thinker. She makes her living with computers now, but I've seen her work, and it's good. She also has a gift for motherhood; she is calm, steady, patient, and firm, and rides the line between indulgent and disciplined with a deft grace and innate fairness that has paid off in the good temper and persistent cheer of my nephew, D. The two of them – K and Tode – are a united front, and while some of D's good nature is only attributable to him, it is certainly encouraged by the combined efforts of his parents. He's seven, and rather than being overwhelmed, cranky, overstimulated, grumpy, or otherwise fractious at the thought of having fifteen or so relatives descend upon him all at once, he was happy and excited, but well in hand. This was a lucky thing, since I was staying in the house with them, so I was glad not to be a disruption for him (or the rest). But there are so many of us that even if you laid us all out like cod on the floor, there wouldn't be enough space, so my brother rented a large house (complete with view) in the collegiate part of town, near the U of Oregon campus.
Meanwhile, Tode (having picked me up from the airport in Eugene) drove me to the house, offered me a beer and made sure I had a snack. (Best. Baby. Brother. Ever.) The next day we went back to the airport and picked up twelve more of us. Sardining us all into two minivans, we trundled over to the rental house, which was capacious (by necessity) and nicely-appointed (by good luck and the diligent offices of Tode, who went to some trouble to acquire good accommodations.) Two more came in a little later, flying into Portland and driving to Eugene, and two more flew into Eugene and rented another minivan (and God knows we needed the space). There are still more of us who could not attend for various work-related reasons. If those had managed to make it, we'd have needed another house.
From past experience, we've determined that the way to do things at a family reunion is to plan no more than one event per day, and preferably one that does not take up the entire day unless it is a restful sort of event. There were only two events that had to be on a particular day, one on Friday (the Oregon County Fair) and one on Saturday (pool-party barbecue day, requiring the reservation of the pool house.) Everything else was flexible, and attendance is never mandatory; if an event doesn't interest you, no one quibbles if you choose to skip it and have a nap or a read. After all, part of the point of a reunion is to, you know, reunite, so you really should have plenty of time to lounge around and chitchat, to eat and drink and catch up and tease one another and generally enjoy seeing your rellies. Even if most of them are taller than you and you have to peer up at them from a great distance. And here I'm not mentioning any names, but I'm glaring at all the offenders, which means anyone older than eight. That means you, you twelve-year-olds-and-up.
It was an excellent reunion – some of which I will detail for you in post number next (to avoid making this one 1,000 pages). If you find these things boring, feel free to skip ahead to where I will (with any luck) be posting about fishing or medicine or animals or some such nonsense. But for a post or three, if you like, you can come to the family reunion with me, cyberversion. Of course, that might mean you have to meet my rellies, but that's pretty safe. I'm the only one who bites, and you're already used to me.
They say you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives. This is, at least in our case, somewhat untrue; we have a thing called a "fribling", which is a friend who has become part of the family, so much so that they are invited to the family reunions and are included in family celebrations and events. So, demonstrably, at least in some cases you can pick your relatives. You are kind of stuck with the ones you were born with, though, and in that I've been lucky. I like them all – and I mean genuinely like them, would voluntarily spend time with them even if I did not have to. They are smart, kind, good-hearted and generous. They are ethical and moral, and willing to act upon what they hold true. And they think. Their opinions – social, political, artistic, personal and otherwise - are the result of actual thought and consideration, not of the meme of the moment or of some local hysteria or a hot sound-bite. I don't necessarily agree with all of them, but I respect that they are opinions formed of reason, a personal code of ethics and due consideration.
They are none of them perfect – and no more am I. But they're damned good, and I'm lucky in that.